Several filmmakers have their own insight into what the recession has done to the middle class. Few of them have as much anger as David Guy Levy, director of “Would You Rather,” a sinister new thriller opening in theaters this Friday. Levy thinks of the general public as prey not to be hunted, but to be toyed with — why eat the poor, when they can provide entertainment? It’s not the most optimistic outlook, admittedly.
Brittany Snow is Iris, a broke medical assistant slaving away for wages that don’t even come close to what she needs. Her brother is suffering with an untold disease, and she’s abandoned her prior life to work at home and assist in his health. Levy tries to emphasize this backstory as pivotal without harping on the specifics, rendering it movie shorthand; maybe the one token moment of sincerity with her ailing bro could have been supported by a second? Maybe we can know a little bit about Iris’ past life? Snow, a former teen star, has added only a couple of mature wrinkles to her face, but retains her youthful beauty, and could be a carefree 22, or a harried 30. It makes a difference, but we wouldn’t know, because as soon as she tells her sob story, we know that she’s destined to be a pawn in someone’s lethal game. It’s a horror movie. You know these things.
She meets up with a co-worker’s friend, a sinister entrepreneur of sorts played by a bulked-up Jeffrey Combs, looking more like genre buddy Bruce Campbell by the day. Combs has lost that slivery, pompous air that made the “Re-Animator” films such a delight. Now he’s more bluster and bombast, a grade-A asshole you can see coming from a mile away. When he creepily propositions our lead, we’re meant to see him in her eyes: here’s a rich man, promising a game with a chance to win enough money to rescue her from trouble. He’s also clearly gleeful about withholding information about said game, and it’s clear that he won’t be playing himself, and that we’re looking at the gamemaster in all his glory. It seems pretty clear we’d be the evening’s entertainment; a reasonable person says no.
Apparently this unnamable disease her brother has is just the right sort of carrot to be dangled, forcing her to attend the evening’s proceedings. Alongside a gaggle of familiar character actors, dinner is served. And when she refuses to eat steak (she’s a vegetarian), she’s offered $10k to reconsider. Recovering alcoholic John Heard, meanwhile, is gifted $50k for breaking his AA vows, suggesting that the evening is about to have some high stakes. Of course, Levy’s mistake is giving them an out before the “game” begins. With Heard and Snow’s winnings, they could easily bolt at that point, having compromised their loyalties severely. Given that their sacrifices were not even part of the game, it’s unimaginable at that point what they would have to give up to earn more. Well, okay, it’s not that unimaginable. It’s a horror movie. You know these things.
Since they don’t bolt, the game is revealed to be Would You Rather, involving them being forced to act out horribly random acts of violence towards one target or another. The one player with no qualms about this cruelty, which starts rough and doesn’t relent, is played by Sasha Grey. Given how talky this entire enterprise is, it’s amazing that the one theoretically-untrained actor can convey more thoughtfulness and emotion through a raised eyebrow. She’s given the role of a goth nihilist, but it only gives her the chance to loudly announce that the role is beneath her – her line readings are flat, which some would say is a mark of her non-talent, but is probably the fact that the seventh lead in a chintzy horror movie, and the dubious corresponding dialogue, is a fool’s errand. They don’t write women well, they don’t write some horror characters well, and they sure as hell never write supporting female characters in horror movies well.
Unfortunately, “Would You Rather” is content with being a risible borderline torture porn horror film. Which means there’s a predictable element to it all that seems to be acknowledged, and hastily ignored, by this generation of filmmakers. Not only is the pattern of bloodshed likely, but so is the omnipotence of our villain – Combs’ character comes across as having played this multiple times before, and in theory no one ever goes to the cops. He’s bulletproof in the face of the law, for reasons inexplicable, and the suggestion is that if he’s taken out, someone will eventually take his place. That suggestion isn’t literal, but rather an assumption based on a belief Levy tonally shares with the audience: the world has an incurable evil in greed, and there’s no real way to stop it. Cool story, bro. [C-]